Rugby punts bounding through college football
PHOENIX (AP) — University of Hawaii punter Scott Harding takes the snap, runs toward the sideline and surveys the oncoming rush before unleashing an end-over-end kick.
Depending on how the defense plays it, Harding will kick quickly, hold it an extra beat to give his coverage team more time or, if the defenders fall back too quickly, he can run toward the first-down marker.
The Australian can kick running in both directions, with either foot. Occasionally, he’ll try to hit the defensive players in the back to create a turnover.
“I’ve been around a long time and it’s the most amazing thing I’ve seen,” Hawaii coach Norm Chow said. “I wish I could take credit for it, but this guy is an amazing, amazing guy.”
Harding definitely has a unique skill set, and the rugby style of punting he uses is spreading across American college football.
The setup is the same as a traditional punt, with the punter lined up about 14 yards (meters) behind the line of scrimmage.
The rest of it is unorthodox, at least in the world of American football.
Instead of taking a few calculated steps and kicking in the same cadence every time, rugby-stylers run at an angle toward the line of scrimmage and kick on the move.
The ball’s flight is more flat and tumbling, not booming and spiraled, making it tougher to catch.
Traditional punts sometimes bounce forward, sometimes back up like a golf ball hitting a green. In rugby-style punts, the landing is almost always forward because of the topspin, tumbling up to 30 extra yards. The unpredictable roll — much like an onside kick — also makes it more difficult for returners to handle.
The threat of a fake is always there because the punter is already on the move toward the line of scrimmage and often waits until the last second before kicking.
And because the punter is holding the ball so long, the coverage team has extra time to get down the field; unlike the NFL, where only the outside gunners can release before the kick, everyone on the punt team in college football can run down the field right after the snap.
“By the time the returner even thinks about trying to catch it, he’s surrounded by (opposing) players,” said Tom Hackett of the University of Utah, a rugby-style punter who is third nationally with a 46.8-yard average.
Directionality is part of what makes rugby-style punting so effective.
The wave of Australian punters who have hit the U.S. in recent years — Harding and Hackett among the latest batch — are particularly good at placing their kicks after growing up playing rugby or Aussie Rules football.
Hackett leads the nation in punts inside the 10-yard line with 18. And Hawaii, thanks to Harding’s pinpoint kicking, is third nationally in punt coverage, allowing 30 return yards all season.
Even the American punters who aren’t as adept at the kick as the Aussies have turned to rugby style. Their punts usually aren’t nearly as majestic, sometimes travelling just 25 to 30 yards in the air, but the extra roll and the difficulty of returning the kicks makes up for it.
“A lot of the time, teams just let it bounce around and take it where they can get it,” Chow said.
Harding is the rare punter who uses the rugby-style punt exclusively. Hackett had to learn the traditional punt after coming over to the U.S. and said he probably kicks rugby style about 60 percent of the time.
American punters like the University of Arizona’s Drew Riggleman grew up kicking traditionally and have added the rugby punt.
“He’s gotten so good at that with ball placement, that it’s become more of a weapon than we even thought before the season,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said.